Interview: David Pountney on Welsh National Opera’s Wagner-themed Season

This summer, Welsh National Opera is celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth with a Wagner-themed season. A new production of Lohengrin (director and designer Antony McDonald, conducted by Music Director Lothar Koenigs) will be followed by the first fully-staged UK performance of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream (director Pierre Audi, conducted by Nicholas Collon and featuring a new libretto translation into German and Pali by Professor Richard Gombrich, together with Head of Music Russell Moreton).

WNO Artistic Director and CEO David Pountney spoke with Steph Power ahead of the season opening about twinning the two operas.

Steph Power: It’s Wagner’s bicentenary and Welsh National Opera is celebrating by twinning Lohengrin with a contemporary opera, the late Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream, which features Wagner as a character. What light does that throw upon each work?

David Pountney: In a way, bringing these two pieces together seemed pretty obvious really. There are not many composers about whom another opera exists – where that composer is a main character. Of course there’s lots of nonsense about Schubert and Chopin for instance, where they’re taken as romantic lead characters – and I believe Schnittke wrote an opera about Gesualdo – but Harvey’s opera is a really quite exceptional reference. So there is an obvious hook, if you like, of finding a way to make it a stimulating experience for an audience to experiment with a new piece on the back of seeing Lohengrin; maybe the audience will be encouraged to see what another composer would have to say about Wagner. There is a kind of synergy there that we hope will stimulate people’s curiosity.

And then there’s a deeper point, which is that, to some extent, in Lohengrin you find Wagner, for the first time I think, trying to find a musical language for a kind of transcendental state which arrives in the character of Lohengrin. We don’t know – or are not supposed to know – Lohengrin’s association with the Holy Grail when we watch the piece; we’re not supposed to know who he is or where he comes from.

No, it’s the big, forbidden secret, only revealed at the very end.

But it’s signaled very clearly in the music. And of course that music of transcendence is something that Jonathan Harvey spent a whole lifetime trying to find through his Buddhism and his profound interest in after-life experience. In a way, his whole exploration of the possibilities of electronic music is an attempt to find a language that he could postulate as a kind of interpretation of after-life experience, or a transcendental experience. What you have with Wagner Dream is a 21st century composer who is very preoccupied by sound – and sound in a spatial sense – and who is, therefore, to some extent creating an echo of a Wagnerian soundworld, but using totally 21st century means.

Both pieces share an aspiration to the divine perhaps – but very differently?

Well, Wagner Dream is about the fact that Wagner was contemplating an opera on a Buddhist theme for the final fifteen or twenty years of his life [Die Siegerthe Victors] and that, through his encounter with the writings of Schopenhauer in the 1850s, he had begun to get really interested in all kinds of theories of self renunciation; of stepping outside the self or shedding the self – which I suppose is what Isolde does at the end of Tristan und Isolde. So Wagner too was very interested in that transcendental experience – although, in contrast to Harvey, he was obviously also a deeply carnal and passionate and hedonistic human being.

Hence the paradox in him that Harvey was so fascinated by?

Yes, exactly. So I think we are trying to offer something in our summer season which, for those who want to take up the offer, is a very stimulating experience; of seeing two completely different visions of what opera might be like, but somehow very closely linked around the same subject and the same composer.

It strikes me that Wagner’s operas are full of that paradox between, if you like, the ‘will to power’ on the one hand and submission, the surrender of the will, on the other. And he is a composer who has split opinion on so many different levels! But Harvey seems to be more interested in Wagner’s internal divisions than in his external divisiveness as a cultural figure.

In Harvey’s opera, Wagner’s Buddhist mentors try to steer him towards a peaceful transition as he dies – which is what I guess a Buddhist would describe death as being; merely the moving from one state into another – that he should do this in as calm a state of mind as possible. And, in the piece, that is contrasted with banal scenes of Wagner’s domestic situation; he’s having a stupid row with his wife and there’s some pretty girl that he fancied from the production of Parsifal trying to come and visit him. So there’s a whiff of a rather absurd domestic scandal going on and I suppose that is a remnant of the sort of permanently chaotic, exhibitionist, egoistical state of Wagner’s actual personal life – which has never stood up terribly well to close scrutiny!

On the point of death, he’s still struggling with his own perception of his eternal destiny instead of just realising that it’s all up now, and that he’d better let go and relax. It is an entire opera about the process of death – you know, death usually arrives as a wanted or an unwanted conclusion towards the end of a story, but in this case death is the premise.

I understand that this is the first time Lohengrin has been staged by WNO since the sixties. So it seems a good time to be bringing the work back to a WNO audience.

It’s a work which suits our Music Director, Lothar Koenigs, very much and that’s one very good reason for doing it. It’s also a terrific showpiece for the chorus – of all Wagner’s operas, it’s probably the most reliant on the quality of the chorus, so that’s another very good reason.

Wagner’s later operas seem to attract far more attention than Lohengrin and people have, over the years, questioned how far the piece succeeds dramatically; the character of Elsa, for instance, has been criticised as too naïve and the morality is very unsubtle. What do you feel the piece is actually saying?

My own view is that it’s a piece that was very much part of the period in which Wagner was involved in the democratic revolutions of 1848-9.

When he was on the barricades at the Dresden Uprising?

Indeed. And so sometimes it can be a little bit difficult to get the link as it were, because you keep looking in the story of Lohengrin for some fight for liberty or democracy and there isn’t one. So what is going on? I think the point – which is something that’s hard for us to grasp, except maybe the Welsh would understand this very well – is that it’s enough simply to use the form of opera and to make the subject matter early German mythology. This in itself is a nationalist statement. And I think, in Wales, people would understand that you don’t have to tell a story about national identity to make a nationalist point. Simply by telling a Welsh story, a story that comes from your cultural past, in a forum which is of international significance, is to assert Welsh identity. And that’s what Wagner is doing in this piece. Until this point, opera has traditionally made references to Greek mythology or to ancient literature. But in Lohengrin, Wagner is making references to a totally German piece of mythological history and therefore asserting Germany itself as a cultural identity.

That’s one aspect and I think the other aspect – which is, in a way, truly revolutionary – is surely the point about Lohengrin turning up to be the saviour and then saying you have to accept me without knowing anything about me. This is actually where Wagner makes a totally democratic assertion – it’s saying I wish to be judged not by who I am but by what I do, and that my background – whether I’m an aristocrat or whether I’m a pauper or wherever I’ve come from – is not relevant. What is relevant is the way I behave and what I do. This is a very strong democratic statement and has, I think, often been very confusingly interpreted – but that’s what it seems to mean to me.

Also, I suppose, both Lohengrin and Wagner Dream are about knowledge and where knowledge comes from, and the notion of belief as a foundation of knowledge. In Lohengrin, the drama pivots around Elsa’s ‘need to know’ and in the Harvey, it’s Wagner who ‘needs to know’!

Right! And the question of who is redeeming who is another way of looking at that knowledge question because perhaps it is the case that Lohengrin requires Elsa’s belief in him in order for him to exist as a pure human being, unembellished so to speak by whatever his role is in the Knights of the Grail. That’s what it’s about isn’t it? Lohengrin wants to stand and say ‘I’m me and you have to believe in me as me’. And, actually, in other Wagner operas too I suppose there is also this requirement of total belief to enable the man to be redeemed. That’s the subject of the Flying Dutchman certainly.

Yes. And there is the notion of the suffering artist/hero who has to go away in order to be fully who he is – to realise his creative destiny.

Well there’s no doubt, that these pieces are all – as has often been said – in some sense portraits of Wagner himself. Clearly he was desperate to be believed in for his own sake and to be relieved of the obligation to prove that he should be believed in – but just be believed in. This is what he seems to be looking for in so many of his pieces.

Wagner didn’t manage to see Lohengrin himself in the theatre until 1861 because he was in exile. And during that time he wrote his treatise Oper und Drama and started sketching the Ring. So perhaps Lohengrin is pivotal in that sense of proving himself and defining the direction in which he wanted to push music-drama?

Yes – and obviously he’s expressing himself in Lohengrin in ways which would later seem to be crude. That is, he’s telling this mythological story without really owning it or transforming it in the way that he would later transform such stories in the Ring, for example, to become something much more about his own philosophy of life. That’s why I think we struggle a bit with Lohengrin, because it’s quite black and white. It has an obvious good versus evil, with clear goodies and baddies. It’s like a piece of folk art in a sense; it’s very clear which colour everybody is.

Both Lohengrin and Wagner Dream explore ideas of the old and the new in religious terms. How might we, as it were, locate Wagner’s philosophical and religious thinking in the light of Wagner Dream?

Well, I guess it’s part of the long journey that Wagner undertook and that’s one of the things that makes him such a significant composer. Both he and Verdi went on developing their world view, their idea of their music and their idea of theatre, right to the end of their lives, so they were constantly finding things to say. Wagner develops from this quite sort of primitive Christianity as expressed in Lohengrin, through the whole drama of Parsifal. Then he contemplates writing an opera about Jesus Christ himself before moving on from that to the Buddha. So, actually, his journey, again via Schopenhauer, has been a journey towards an extremely radical and modern position for a man in the 1870s, to be espousing the idea of renunciation and thinking seriously about Buddhism. Now it’s much more common that Western people might do that, but it was incredibly radical at the time.

It seems fascinating that Harvey has run with that and brought it into Wagner Dream.

I think particularly, as you would say, that in every other respect aesthetically and personally and socially they could not be more different people. So in a way you feel that Harvey is sort of reaching out to somebody who is his absolute opposite in almost every significant sense, but nonetheless finding this hugely communal aspect.

Could you say something about the decision to translate the original, English libretto of Wagner Dream into German and Pali?

Well I think the point is that the piece is constructed in two distinct worlds; one is the domestic situation on Wagner’s dying day and the other is really a Buddhist parable. I think the piece is enormously strengthened by not having both separate worlds diluted by being expressed through a third common language which is English. I found that makes it very difficult to make Wagner a convincing character because, for me, to hear Wagner speaking English didn’t make any sense. And then again, to have the exotic, foreign nature of the Buddhist parable also being somehow brought down to earth by rather plain English I found quite difficult. So I hope the translation into German and Pali really enhances the impact of the piece for people, because these two very different worlds will have their own very clear colours and not be muddied by both being rendered in a language which is actually relevant to neither.

I think it was Arnold Whittall who said about Harvey’s earlier music that there are times where the vocal element is less successful than the instrumental element – particularly where the electronics are so striking – in expressing that transcendental state that he seeks. But it seems to me that the translation into Pali in particular – should give the vocal music in Wagner Dream a much better chance in that regard.

I believe so. I went to the concert performance at the Barbican and it was very clear to me that this is what we should try to do and it’s fantastic that Professor Richard Gombrich [Founder-President of the Oxford Buddhist Centre] has been so helpful in agreeing to prepare the translation. Because it was a completely bizarre request! He’s had to work in a very painstaking way with Russell Moreton, our Head of Music, to change each line and to find a way of adapting the music to fit the Pali and so on, and he’s been very generous in giving a lot of his time. Harvey agreed to the translation and saw the whole libretto before he died, so he accepted what we were doing.

I think you can say about Harvey that his aural sense is extremely robust and the point about this piece is the soundworld of it. It’s very convincing and carries the story. Harvey is not an expert or revolutionary dramatist in the sense that Wagner is; that’s something outside his capabilities really, and he obviously doesn’t have the same kind of operatic experience that Wagner acquired through his life – although, by relatively early on, Wagner knows what he’s doing in a very impressive way! So I think, in the case of Harvey, he has this really very complex dramaturgical idea of bringing these two worlds onto the stage, and I think the thing that sustains that rather delicate operation is his aural sense and his spatial music with the electronics.

Obviously Harvey is building cultural bridges in Wagner Dream – and it’s fascinating that he is thinking about Wagner’s thoughts as a means of dialogue with him!

Yes, absolutely.

Both Wagner and Harvey were composers of ideas in a sense.

Yes and I think this whole process of careful programming of pieces together – as we did with Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen and Berg’s Lulu – is very important; that, actually, an opera company should be a source of intellectual discourse within the society in which it operates. I’m not saying that everybody has to go in for that. Neither is it necessary in order to enjoy either piece; they can be enjoyed as purely sensual experiences. But I think if we’re going to go to all the effort and expense of having an opera company, it should be putting out material into society which is a stimulating subject of discourse.

Many thanks David.

Lohengrin runs until 15 June and Wagner Dream runs from 6 – 12 June, both in Cardiff and Birmingham:


Banner illustration by Dean Lewis